Throughout the winter of 1947-48, and the summer that followed, the Punch garrison had remained cut off. Under Brigadier Pritam Singh it continued to wage its lonely battles against the besieging hordes. During the last ten days of January 1948, the enemy put in six detemtined attacks against Indian picquets but the garrison was able to fight the enemy back.
In the new year, Punch received some reinforcements. Two companies of 3/9 Gorkha Rifles were air-landed in the first week of January. Later in the month, the remaining guns of 4 (Hazara) Mountain Battery arrived and in February, the rest of 3/9 Gorkha Rifles joined the garrison. The arrival of these reinforcements enabled Pritam Singh to undertake operations against enemy strongholds. Feeding the refugees was a big problem for him. The food requirements of the civil population were met to some extent by foraging. Pritam Singh called it Operation ‘Grain’. Foraging parties included women and children and went under escort to harvest grain from enemy-held territory. Some of these expeditions were elaborate military operations, costly in men. In a single venture on 8 February, 1 (Para) Kumaon lost 53 men (19 killed, 34 wounded). More lives would have been lost but for the gallantry of one of the company commanders.
“¦it would be impossible to hold the enemy any longer. The battalion commander knew that the situation was critical and ordered a withdrawal.
Khanetar, a village South of the Punch River, had been the objective of this particular mission. Besides three weak companies of this battalion, the expedition included two companies of 1 Kashmir Rifles and one company of Punch Scouts. The plan was to capture a ridge that overlooked the village with a two-company attack by the Kumaonis, while the rest of the force would secure other features simultaneously. The refugees were thereafter to do the foraging. It so happened that the enemy strength on the ridge was much more than what intelligence reports had estimated. The result was that after two abortive attacks, the hunter became the hunted, and the Kumaonis found themselves under attack from the flanks as well as the front. After two enemy counter-attacks had been repulsed at heavy cost, Major Malkit Singh Brar, whose company had suffered the most and who himself had been wounded, went over to the battalion commander during a lull and told him that it would be impossible to hold the enemy any longer. The battalion commander knew that the situation was critical and ordered a withdrawal.
As Brar was returning to his company, a third enemy attack had started. He saw one of his machine-gunners lying beside his gun, dead. He shouted the withdrawal order to his company, pushed the dead gunner aside, picked up the gun, and began to blaze away at the advancing enemy. The company withdrew, but not Major Brar. He died fighting. “Well done, B Company!”were the last words he was heard to utter. A posthumous award of the MVC was the tribute the country paid to this soldier.39
The arrival of enemy howitzers at Punch on 17 March created a crisis for its garrison. The first shell fell during the evening and landed very close to the air-strip.
Three weeks later, this reverse was avenged when the Kumaonis and the J&K Infantry raided Khanetar again. This time they were better prepared, being supported by the Hazaras’ howitzers and the Mahar machine-gunners. The documents on the enemy dead showed they were paratroopers from Pakistan’s 3/16 Punjab Regiment.
The 3/9 Gorkhas also played their part in Operation ‘Grain’. In a three-day expedition, mounted on the night of 14/15 February, in which a company of the Kumaonis also took part, 1,000 quintals of grain were collected from Kosalian, a village West of Punch.
The arrival of enemy howitzers at Punch on 17 March created a crisis for its garrison. The first shell fell during the evening and landed very close to the air-strip. About 400 shells fell on Punch that night. However, due to the poor marksmanship of enemy gunners, little damage was done. Shelling continued the next day, though not with the same intensity. 25-pounders were the only answer to the howitzers, and Pritam Singh made an urgent request for two of them. The landing of these guns at Punch was itself an event.
When they saw one of the Dakotas put out of action, they ordered postponement of the landing till the night. The
Pritam Singh was told that the guns would arrive around midday on 21 March. The Dakotas carrying the guns, their ammunition, and the gunners arrived punctually over Punch. The enemy was, however, lying in wait and immediately opened rapid fire on the air-strip. Group Captain Mehar Singh and Major General Kalwant Singh had earlier taken off in a Harvard and were watching the landing from the air. When they saw one of the Dakotas put out of action, they ordered postponement of the landing till the night. The air-strip at Punch had no facilities for night landing; it would require a lot of skill and nerve to attempt it. The Dakota crew had both, and the 25-pounders were landed that night.
While the 25-pounders took care of the enemy howitzers, the Air Force did not let the day’s mischief go unpunished. The next day (22 March), Tempests and Dakotas came in repeated sorties to bomb and to strafe. The slaughter was great, and the enemy was seen carrying away its dead and wounded from the Rangur Nulla area towards the West. Mehar Singh, who was then commanding No.1 (Operational) Group, had converted some of his Dakotas to bombers. Each aircraft carried four 250-pound bombs, and he himself undertook the first bombing mission. The heavy punishment meted out that day brought a welcome respite to Punch. Pritam Singh took advantage of the lull to send out a long-range patrol towards Madarpur, an enemy-dominated locality West of Punch. Another trouble-spot was Tetrinot, a village across the Rangur Nulla. The 3/9 Gorkhas captured the hill in a night attack on 17 May.
By the middle of June, when the Punch garrison had consolidated itself, Atma Singh, the Divisional Commander, decided to carry out a reconnaissance in force of the Southern route to this town. At the same time 1 (Para) Kumaon, which had been in action for many months, was to be brought out for a brief rest. It was a bold decision considering that the whole area between Punch and Rajauri was in enemy hands. The plan, codenamed Operation ‘Gulab’, called for the simultaneous move of two columns—one from Rajauri, the other from Punch—to Surankot. After a rendezvous there, the combined force was to move South-West, raid the enemy base at Mendhar and thereafter push off to Punch. The column was then to return to Rajauri with 1 (Para) Kumaon.